On more than one occasion a survivor of childhood abuse will ask me why they have a hard time finding and sustaining healthy romantic relationships. There are many reasons; most of them related to what they experienced in relationships when they were young. As abused children they learn that they are not worthy of being protected, that they deserve to be hurt, and that in being submissive to other’s wishes they are most likely to avoid harm. Knowing this, it’s not surprising that adults abused as children end up in unhealthy, abusive relationships.
For children, like myself, who were sexually abused as children there is an extra lesson to learn; one about the role of sex in our lives. We miss out on the lesson that sex is a healthy expression of committed love between adults. Instead we learn, very well if our abuse is repeated and sustained over a long period of time, that sex is a currency. And with that currency we proceed into our teenage and adult lives trying to buy all the things our childhood lacked: love, affection, attention, and acceptance.
As a child, I learned this lesson very well. When my abuser was using me for sexual gratification he was always very sweet to me. He told me I was special and beloved to him. He showed me great kindness and affection outside of the episodes of abuse. I learned that being sexually violated was the price I paid for being treated with for what passed as love in my family. And thus I learned that not only was sex the way to “earn” love, but that love often had an element of being treated very badly.
When I turned 11 my abuser became afraid he would impregnate me. The sexual abuse stopped. But so did the kindness. Instead he ignored me. I was no longer special, pretty or beloved. Instead I was confused, lost, and broken hearted. Once again the lesson I learned was that the difference between being “loved” and not being “loved” was sex.
When I was fourteen years old a 20 year old soldier from the local Army base came into the fast food restaurant where I was working. For weeks he flirted with me, showing me the most male attention I had received in the three years since my abuser had turned off his affection like a faucet. I was desperate for kindness, even though my idea of kindness had been extremely perverted. When he offered to drive me home one night but pulled over to the side of the road and asked for sex I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I had no understanding of statutory rape. I had no clue what was going on was wrong. What I did know, with great certainty, is that I wanted his affection. Sex was the currency I used to pay for it.
Time and time again I have survivors tell me, with great shame, that they had periods of time in their lives when they were promiscuous. Sometimes they come into therapy still involved in frequently seeking out multiple sex partners. They desperately want love and affection. Sex is the only way they know how to obtain those things. So they attract perpetrators and abusers, because those individuals are the ones who provide kindness in exchange for sex. When those relationships fall apart they blame themselves because they’ve been taught to always be the holder of blame in any failed interpersonal interaction.
In the meantime, the failed relationships and promiscuity add to the tremendous shame they already feel from the abuse they suffered as a child. That shame feeds their already low self-esteem, which reinforces their belief that they don’t deserve to be treated well by a partner. And thus the cycle of tolerating abusive and unhealthy treatment in relationships continues. It repeats itself over and over again, beating the survivor further and further down with each spin through the cycle.
Unfortunately the consequences of childhood abuse don’t end with childhood. They don’t stop when the abuse stops. Sex, the very thing that was used to harm them, becomes a survivor’s currency. But no matter how much of it they spend or how often they spend it they never obtain the love they so desperately seek. For years, even decades, after the original abuse stops the victimization continues. In this way broken people become so broken that they cannot even hold the pieces together long enough to receive the fleeting moment of kindness that the currency of sex buys.
If you are a survivor of sexual abuse know that I understand so much of what you have experienced. I invite you to join our Twitter community on Monday mornings at 10am PST (use the hashtag #CSAQT) or Tuesday evenings at 6pm (use the hashtag #sexabusechat) for our Twitter Chats. Come be amongst those who share your experiences and will not judge you. We want only one thing, a thing that has become the motto for our chat: No More Shame.